Do Communication Technologies Give Disaster-Affected People a Voice? Reflections Two Years After Haiyan

Source: Mon, 9 Nov 2015 11:02 AM
Image: Mirca Madianou
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With yesterday being the second anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda), which hit the Philippines on November 8th 2013, Researcher Mirca Madianou, of Goldsmiths University of London, considers how we can assess the role of communication technologies in disaster recovery.

Because of the existing infrastructure in the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm ever recorded with over 6,000 casualties and 12 million people affected, was widely seen as the ideal laboratory to pilot initiatives for humanitarian communication and accountability. But what difference did mobile phones and other interactive platforms make in the long-term recovery?

The ESRC-funded Humanitarian Technologies Project explored precisely this question. Drawing on an 18-month ethnography with affected communities in two locations in the Visayas we observed that technologies, such as mobile phones, can facilitate voice but only as long as other factors, such as social capital and a strong civil society, are present.

Crucially, we observed a clear divide between better-off people, who are most likely to use technologies to participate in disaster recovery, and the poorer participants for whom finding a voice is more challenging, if not impossible. Better off participants can exploit some of the potentials of digital technologies to make their voices heard and bring attention to their problems, often improving their social positions. Those who are most in need - and who were hit hardest by the disaster - are less likely to find such opportunities because they lack access to these technologies and the skills needed to use them.

Rather than creating a ‘level playing field’ new communication technologies exacerbate social inequalities by heightening the life chances for the better off, whilst leaving poorer participants behind. The deepening of social inequalities combined with the delayed recovery can compound the effects of the original calamity creating a ‘second order disaster’. This refers to humanly perpetuated disasters that can even surpass the effects of the natural disaster.

Communication and the return to normality

Communication technologies may not have fulfilled expectations of voice and participation, but they are still firmly embedded in the everyday lives of our participants. Mobile phones and Facebook were widely used for sociality and entertainment, and in mourning and memorialization rituals. People also quickly returned to the long-established uses of social media - dating and computer games.

We view media’s everyday uses in the face of extraordinary events as meaningful coping mechanisms and ways of reintroducing normality in the aftermath of disaster. The familiar rhythm of radio conversation, the global gaming community and the ambient co-presence of Facebook friends are used to reclaim ordinariness within the exceptional.

Platforms that were introduced by aid agencies to facilitate information dissemination and feedback were often appropriated for different purposes by affected people. Humanitarian radio which used Frontline SMS for feedback was, instead, largely used for song requests and dedications to friends and family members. This was an important social function of humanitarian radio and interactive media. Such practices represent a need to affirm relationships in the post-disaster context and a way for people to regain control over their social lives after the disruption of disaster.

The uses of media for sociality and recreation are vital for our participants’ well-being. Yet, we remain aware that the ordinary uses of new as well as old media, despite their social significance, do not achieve the redistribution of resources which is vital in the aftermath of disasters.

The Humanitarian technologies project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant reference ES/M001288/1)

The ideas in this blog piece are further developed in two just-published open access articles:

Mirca Madianou is Principal Investigator for the Humanitarian Technologies Project and Reader in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has published extensively on the social consequences of new communication technologies among marginalised or minority populations especially in the developing world. Her work makes theoretical and substantive contributions to the areas of migration, disaster recovery, humanitarian relief. She is the author of Mediating the Nation: News, Audiences and the Politics of Identity (2005) and Migration and New Media: Transnational Families and Polymedia (2012 with D. Miller) as well as editor of Ethics of Media (2013 with N. Couldry and A. Pinchevski).

Email: m.madianou@gold.ac.uk       Twitter: @madianou

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